Jabbar Collins: The Sins of Joe Hynes?
February 21, 2011
There is nothing more harmful to society than an unprincipled district attorney.
Unfortunately, that description seems to fit Brooklyn’s longtime D.A., Charles J. Hynes.
Once an idealist and reformer, Hynes, in his two decades in Brooklyn, has become the consummate opportunist.
He is yet another example of a once honorable law enforcement official too long in office, whose ambition and ego have run amok.
These faults come into sharp relief in the case of Jabbar Collins, an apparently innocent man framed by Hynes’s office for a rabbi’s murder.
Convicted in 1995 of fatally shooting Rabbi Abraham Pollock, Collins spent 16 years in prison before recent revelations of prosecutorial misconduct led to his release.
Did Hynes feel pressure to get a conviction in the rabbi’s slaying by Brooklyn’s powerful Orthodox Jewish community, with whom Hynes has been especially cozy?
Whatever the answer, Collins’s conviction was overturned in 2010 by federal judge Dora Irizarry, based on “compelling evidence” that the DA’s office “had wrongfully withheld a key witness’s recantation, had knowingly coerced and relied on false testimony and argument at trial, had knowingly suppressed exculpatory and impeachment evidence and had acted affirmatively to cover up such misconduct for 15 years.”
Irizarry termed the prosecutors’ conduct “shameful.”
In a $150 million civil lawsuit that Collins filed last week in federal court, he names as defendants nine Brooklyn Assistant District Attorneys and detective-investigators, including Hynes’s star assistant, Michael Vecchione, who prosecuted Collins.
The lawsuit describes Vecchione as “the principal defendant” who “orchestrated the 15-year cover up of the office’s misconduct.”
Specifically, Collins’s lawsuit charges Vecchione and others “for their misconduct in covering up and withholding documents and information specifically requested by [Collins] over nearly 15 years, which would have revealed Vecchione’s and the office’s wrongdoing and would have provided the basis to overturn [Collins’s] conviction.”
Hynes himself is not named.
“At the present time, there is insufficient evidence that Hynes personally knew about these specific activities aimed at Jabbar Collins when they occurred,” says Collins’s attorney, Joel Rudin.
But the lawsuit cites Hynes’s “history of indifference to such behavior by Vecchione and to other prosecutors in the office and by Hynes’s consistent public approval and ratification of such behavior.”
Hynes refused, says the lawsuit, “to investigate or impose meaningful discipline on dozens of prosecutors found in court decisions to have engaged in misconduct, including deliberate misconduct.”
Joe Hynes sure didn’t start out like this.
Following his success as Special State Prosecutor in the racially-charged Howard Beach case of the 1980s, he was considered a possible mayoral candidate.
Instead, in 1989, he ran and was elected Brooklyn District Attorney.
He later ran unsuccessfully for both attorney general and for governor.
Then, realizing he was going no farther than Brooklyn, he seemed to lose his moral compass.
He did a 180 on the death penalty; cozied up to the politically connected Hasidic Jewish community; placed a former borough president on his payroll as “Director of Community and Civic Affairs” at $125,000 a year; and actually indicted his election opponents.
He also made Vecchione his go-to guy, assigning him the office’s most high-profile cases.
This back-fired most notably after Hynes indicted former FBI agent Lindley DeVecchio for allegedly passing confidential information to the Columbo crime family, leading to four murders.
At a news conference, trumpeting the indictment, Hynes called DeVecchio’s alleged actions “the most stunning example of official corruption I have ever seen.”
It turned out, however, to be a most stunning example of prosecutorial incompetence — one that Collins cites in his lawsuit.
Hynes was forced to drop the case after veteran investigative reporters Tom Robbins and Jerry Capeci presented Hynes with their long ago tape-recorded interview of his star witness, mob moll Linda Schiro, which revealed her to be a stone-cold liar.
Hadn’t Vecchione, as the lead prosecutor, debriefed Schiro?
Worse, did he — and by extension did Hynes — know that Schiro was a liar, and yet still went forward with the case?
It remains unclear why Hynes is enamored of Vecchione, whose judgment seems perpetually clouded.
Your Humble Servant discovered something along these lines while investigating a trip Vecchione made with a female subordinate, ADA Stacey Frascogna, to San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1995.
The two supposedly traveled there to subpoena a witness, Adrian Diaz, in the case against Collins. Collins cites the trip in his lawsuit, claiming Vecchione secretly promised Diaz leniency in return for his testimony.
Newsday — where this reporter was then hanging his hat — began investigating the trip in 2000 for a different reason: allegations that Vecchione’s romance with Frascogna had led to her numerous promotions and hefty salary increases.
Questioned about the Vecchione/Frascogna relationship and Puerto Rico trip, Hynes’s press secretary, Kevin Davitt, wrote to Newsday’s editor, Tony Marro, threatening legal action “in the event Newsday chooses to publish any of the contents or allegations.”
This reporter, who at the time didn’t know that the Puerto Rico trip was connected to the Collins case, then filed a Freedom of Information request, seeking hotel records and expense reports. Hynes denied the request.
Assistant District Attorney Virginia Modest — one of the named defendants in Collins’ lawsuit — wrote that the disclosure of the records “would endanger the life and safety of a person and would disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation.” She did not disclose to which investigation she was referring.
Newsday then sued for the hotel receipts and expense reports in Brooklyn State Supreme Court. Hynes again objected, this time citing a 1999 court decision, which he refused to identify.
Although the hearing began before Justice Edward K. Pincus, Hynes tried to move it before Justice Joseph Dowd.
Assistant District Attorney Jodi Mandel — also a named defendant in Collins’ lawsuit — claimed Dowd had ruled in another case that the records Newsday sought were confidential. Dowd, however, refused to hear the Newsday case so it was returned to Pincus.
In March 2001, Pincus issued a written order, instructing Hynes to answer Newsday’s questions, including: How long did Vecchione and Frascogna stay in Puerto Rico? Did they fly coach or first class? How much did their air fare, hotels and meals cost? Did they have separate rooms? Did others from the district attorney's office accompany them?
Four weeks later, on March 29, Vecchione contacted this reporter, saying he was speaking with Hynes’s approval.
He acknowledged that, while heading the DA’s homicide bureau, he and Frascogna had traveled to Puerto Rico in 1995.
The purpose, he said, was to subpoena a witness to testify against Collins.
He added that Frascogna, who speaks Spanish, had established a rapport with the witness, whom he didn’t identify, and had proved so “charming” that the man voluntarily returned to testify.
Vecchione added that he and Frascogna had stayed in separate rooms at the San Juan Hilton; that his actions were proper; and that only some months later did he and Frascogna begin a personal relationship that lasted through 1998.
But a footnote on page 34 of Collins’s lawsuit suggests that bringing Frasocgna to Puerto Rico had little to do with prosecutorial work.
“Vecchione claimed, in an interview with Newsday, that Frascogna was useful for her Spanish-language ability and for ‘charming’ Diaz into returning ‘voluntarily’ to New York,” the footnote reads.
“However, Diaz spoke English perfectly, as Frascogna certainly knew, from having presented his grand jury testimony.
“And it was not Frascogna’s ‘charms’ that induced Diaz to come back to New York but rather Vecchione’s promise to take care of Diaz’s probation violation and potential imprisonment, which Vecchione did.”
Even after Irizarry overturned Collins’s conviction in 2010, Hynes maintained Collins’s guilt and announced that his office was prepared to prosecute him again.
But the day before Vecchione and Frascogna were to testify about the Puerto Rico trip, Hynes reversed himself and dropped the case, thus avoiding the airing of their office romance.
By his dropping the case, the court and the public also didn’t get to hear that Frascogna’s salary skyrocketed after the Puerto Rico trip.
Internal office documents, included in Collins’ lawsuit, show that she went from earning $33,000 before her trip in 1995, to earning $105,000 in 1999.
Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt